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SFGate: More Asian voices in whiskey debate

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    ... This article was sent to you by someone who found it on SFGate. The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
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      This article was sent to you by someone who found it on SFGate.
      The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
      Sunday, April 11, 2010 (SF Chronicle)
      More Asian voices in whiskey debate
      Paul Clarke, Special to The Chronicle

      Assemble a group of whiskey drinkers and prime them with a glass or two,
      and the talk often wanders to that eternal whiskey debate: the Hillbillies
      versus Highlanders divide between Kentucky and Scotland.
      But if the rising tide of Japanese and other Asian whiskeys entering the
      United States is any indication, "hills" may soon need to be stretched to
      include the Himalayas, "highlands" to encompass the Yamashiro Basin.
      "A lot of people are surprised that the Japanese make whiskey, and it's
      really, really good whiskey - it's not something they just took to," says
      Mateo Hoke, bar manager at Nihon Whisky Lounge in the Mission District,
      which serves several styles of Japanese whiskey along with spirits from
      "Just because it's new to the States and new to people's experience here
      doesn't mean it's a fly-by-night kind of thing. They take it very
      seriously, and they make some of the best whiskey in the world."
      Japan's slow rise in the whiskey world started in 1923, when Suntory
      opened a distillery in Yamazaki, near Kyoto. Working with distiller
      Masataka Taketsuru, the company produced whiskey modeled on Scotland's
      famed spirits. Taketsuru left Suntory in 1934 to form a rival company,
      known today as Nikka. Praise from critics
      Broadly popular at home, Japanese whiskey has earned critical accolades in
      recent years as it has expanded into Western markets. Its image further
      boosted by the 2003 film "Lost in Translation," Japanese whiskey is
      becoming increasingly available in American bars at a time when single
      malts from other Asian producers are also entering the market.
      Suntory currently exports 12-year-old and 18-year-old versions of its
      Yamazaki Single Malt, along with a limited 300-bottle edition of its
      Yamazaki 1984 anniversary whiskey. Last year, U.S. sales of Yamazaki
      reached 25,000 cases, and the company hopes to sell more than 30,000 cases
      in 2010.
      In late 2009, Suntory launched its Hibiki 12-year-old blended whiskey in
      the U.S. and Europe, and the company may introduce single malts from
      another distillery, Hakushu, in coming years. Nikka, which distributes
      several styles of whiskey in Japan and Europe, including the acclaimed
      21-year-old Taketsuru Pure Malt, is also planning to enter the U.S. market
      within the next year.
      Liquor-store geography will become even more complex later this month.
      Five labels from Bangalore-produced Amrut single-malt whiskey enter stores
      in New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Massachusetts. It should be in
      California by the end of the year.
      Whiskeys such as Hibiki and Taketsuru have garnered significant awards in
      recent years; in his "2010 Whisky Bible," whiskey expert Jim Murray rated
      Amrut's Fusion as the third-best whiskey in the world.
      Until recently, Nihon was one of few bars that carried Asian whiskey.
      Today, Suntory's whiskeys can be ordered in San Francisco bars such as
      Alembic, 15 Romolo and Bourbon & Branch, as well as in places such as Bar
      Deville in Chicago and PDT in New York.
      Japanese whiskey is finding enthusiastic fans.
      "It has everything you love about American and scotch whiskeys, but
      there's a whole other world of flavor that takes some time to figure out,"
      says Andrew Friedman, owner of Liberty, a Seattle bar with a growing
      selection of Japanese spirits.
      Friedman notes that Japanese whiskeys have the honey, caramel and vanilla
      notes that are familiar to drinkers of bourbon or scotch. But Friedman
      says he also detects things that he doesn't find in Western whiskeys,
      including elements of sour apples and pears in single malts such as
      Yamazaki and Nikka's Yoichi, and a light floral aroma in blends such as
      Hibiki. More subdued
      Japanese whiskey starts as malted barley, but unlike some heavily peated
      scotch, the smoky character in the Japanese version is often subdued.
      By using different strains of yeast and, in Suntory's case, wooden
      fermentation vats, producers tease different flavors from the grain before
      distilling in copper pot stills.
      The young whiskey is then aged in oak; for Yamazaki, this means using
      three types of wood: some made from used bourbon barrels; others from used
      sherry casks; and others from Japanese mizunara oak, which lends a mildly
      spicy sandalwood character.
      The three batches are mixed before bottling; the Yamazaki 12-year-old is
      largely from American bourbon barrels, while the 18-year-old is mostly
      from sherry casks. For Hibiki, a mixture of spirits from three
      distilleries is finished for its final two years in casks that formerly
      held Japanese plum-wine liqueur, then filtered with bamboo and charcoal, a
      process that lends a trace of fruity richness.
      Japanese whiskeys can maintain a liveliness in the glass even at advanced
      ages, and the 18-year-old Yamazaki has become a favorite among bartenders.
      "It has this kind of precision to it, and it has so much going on," Hoke
      says. "Some people will say that's a Japanese cultural characteristic
      coming through, of every layer being very clearly defined."
      While Nihon mostly sells Asian whiskeys by the glass or bottle, some
      bartenders have found the flavor of Japanese whiskey particularly suitable
      to cocktails. Yamazaki Holiday
      At Rickhouse in the Financial District, bar manager Erick Castro says that
      during the winter holidays the bar was selling a case of Yamazaki
      12-year-old every week, most of it mixed in a seasonal drink called the
      Yamazaki Holiday. The same whiskey also features in one of the most
      popular drinks on Rickhouse's current menu, the Mamie Taylor - a classic
      highball-style drink with lime juice and ginger beer.
      "The Yamazaki is a little softer, a little more feminine, and it plays
      really well with the ginger," Castro says. "We also take pride in
      introducing people to new spirits, and this works really well in that
      Still, a large-scale embrace of Asian whiskey may not happen immediately.
      "It's going to take a while for people to grok it," Friedman says. "Every
      day, we taste people on Japanese whiskey, and those people are amazed to
      find that everything they love about American and scotch whiskeys is
      there, along with another factor that's really surprising." A rundown of
      Asian whiskeys
      While whiskeys such as Yamazaki and Hibiki are increasingly easy to find,
      others such as those from Nikka and Amrut may not be available locally
      until later this year or early 2011. They can be found at such Bay Area
      stores as D&M Wines and Liquors in San Francisco, K&L Wine Merchants in
      San Francisco and Redwood City, and Beltramo's in Menlo Park.
      Yamazaki 12-year-old Single Malt ($42): Crisp and dry, medium bodied, with
      an aroma of orchard fruit and a gentle honeyed sweetness.
      Yamazaki 18-year-old Single Malt ($100): Surprisingly lively for a whiskey
      of its age, the Yamazaki 18-year-old has a rich amber hue; a fruity,
      floral aroma; and a medium body full of honey, winter spices and fresh
      Hibiki Whisky Aged 12 years ($55): This blend of three types of whiskeys
      is bright and fragrant, with an aroma of stone fruit and a flavor that is
      dry and crisp, but with a complex jammy richness.
      Nikka Yoichi 15-year-old Single Malt (not currently available in the
      United States): Made by Nikka at the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido, it's
      rich in color and has an aroma of molasses and jasmine. A hearty yet
      austere flavor of coffee, honey and caramel with a slight touch of smoke.
      - Paul Clarke

      Paul Clarke is a contributing editor at Imbibe magazine and publisher of
      the blog the Cocktail Chronicles. E-mail comments to wine@.... ----------------------------------------------------------------------
      Copyright 2010 SF Chronicle
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